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Vince
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« on: June 29, 2016, 12:12:35 pm »

How to Survive Indiepocalypse in 5 Easy Steps

In the olden days the gaming industry was like a picturesque green pasture, inviting and peaceful. Set up your shop, make your masterpiece, enjoy life. Easy as pie or so the story goes.


Sadly, over the decades the landscape has changed a bit…


It’s gotten so crowded that some people started thinking that the End has to be nigh for surely God, who sent His only begotten Son to die on the cross to redeem mankind, won’t tolerate this hipster plague much longer and will wipe the slate clean sooner or later. So while we’re waiting for the Grand Finale, I might as well share my thoughts in hope that some people would find it useful.

Step 1 - Design

Your game has to stand out. It has to do at least one thing extremely well, preferably something that hasn’t been done before. Why be an indie game developer if not to try new things, right?

It’s not enough to do a game with tried and true mechanics, because in most cases "tried and true" has been done to death long before you decided to throw your hat into the ring. If all you’re adding to the recipe is new visuals, think twice. Sure, it’s possible that Kim Kardashian might tweet about your game and it becomes the next internet sensation, but Kim’s busy taking selfies, so let’s not rely on dumb luck alone.

Of course, every rule has exceptions. If you’re replicating the tried and true gameplay of something as venerable as Jagged Alliance 2, Wizardry 8, or Shadow of the Horned Rat, go right ahead. If not, don’t bother.

For our first game, we went with Choices & Consequences (C&C) – an "easy" category considering that 99% of games promise meaningful choices but never deliver because it takes a very long time, which is something we’ve learned the hard way after making the game for 11 years. AoD gives you:

  • More meaningful choices than you can shake a stick at
  • Parallel questlines showing events from different angles and points of view
  • Radically different "Craft Your Own Story" playthroughs

For our next 'full scale' RPG, we’ll raise C&C up a notch and add party "dynamics", which will be very different from what you’re used to and go against the established design staples, possibly upsetting some folks in the process (again). It’s a very ambitious design, but as I said, doing what’s been done before – even if it was done by you – is not enough. You have to push forward or you will not survive.

Step 2 – Community

Now that you’re working on your game, you have to build a community around it and spread the word. No matter how well-designed your game is it will fail all the same if nobody knows about it. Yes, that too is your job.

Many indie developers look at what the AAA developers do and take notes. They think that if they act like the AAA boys, you know, professional and shit, everyone will assume they are real developers too and take them seriously.

Don’t do semi-official press-releases where you quote yourself. Don’t ask volunteer testers to sign NDAs as if you have the time, money, or desire to enforce them. Don’t write you own EULA on Steam as if Steam’s EULA isn’t good enough for you. Worst of all, don’t guard your stories and design ideas because someone might steal them. Yeah, Bethesda will decide to postpone The Elder Scrolls 6 and steal your shitty totally awesome ideas instead.

You have to sell people on your vision and you can’t do it if all you give them is a brief summary and Todd Howard’s famous “Trust us, it will be cool” line.

We’ve posted everything we had from day one. If we didn’t show something, it’s because we didn’t have it. We’ve "spoiled" every aspect of the game and answered every question about the game on as many forums as we could, giving people reasons to follow the game.

Go out into the world and engage gaming communities. Don’t hide behind moderators or "community managers". People who give a fuck about your game don’t want to be "managed", they want to talk to the guys making the game.

I made over 10,000 posts on multiple forums talking to people who showed interest and had questions. Oscar made over 6,000 posts. That’s not counting posts on Steam since we launched on Early Access and even more posts later after the game was released. If you can’t be arsed to talk to people who’re interested in your game, don’t expect them to support you in the future. Find time or you won’t stay in this business for long.

A word of warning before we get to the next chapter: when mingling with people you might discover that not everyone thinks your game ideas are as great as you think they are. Some people might actually harbor suspicions that your game sucks and be willing and even eager to share these thoughts with everyone they run into. You’d better get used to it because it’s going to happen a lot. ‘tis the magic of the internet.

Step 3 – Making a Game

Surprisingly, this step isn’t really about making a game. If you can’t make one, this handy guide won’t help you. It’s about the "economics" of it. You see, unless you hit it really big for an indie, like Darkest Dungeon-big, you won’t make a lot of money (for a real studio). Thus you must budget and ration like a lost-at-sea sailor to avoid these two fairly typical scenarios, which happen more often than you might think:

  • You made a good game, it sold well for an indie but now you’re 100k in debt because the costs spiraled out of control. Basically, you made a good game but you spent more than you should have and now you’re dead in the water.
  • You made a good game, it sold well for an indie, you recovered your initial investment and bought yourself an ice-cream but you have no money to continue and now you must try your luck on Kickstarter where you get not what you need to make a game but what you can get, which is anywhere from 10 to 30% if you’re lucky.

Treat what you earn from the first game as your operational budget for the second game. So the more you spend making your first game, the less you’ll have to make your second game. You see, the first game is always done on pure enthusiasm. You’re making a game, living the dream, working part-time, evenings and nights for years, because sleep is overrated. Enthusiasm is a great and cheap resource but you can’t run on it forever.

The goal here is to survive the indiepocalypse and build a real studio, right? So you make a game on enthusiasm, use what it earned to make a second game, use what it earned to make a third game, etc.

The Age of Decadence sold over 50,000 copies to-date at $22 average. The revenues aren't our reward for 11 years of hard work (that's done and gone) but our budget for the "Colony Ship RPG", our second project.

Step 5 (yes, we’ve just jumped from 3 to 5 because math is a social construct) – Make Another Game

You made your first game and it sold well enough to continue. Congrats! Now you have to do it all over again, but you need to do it better (see Step 1) and faster. In our case it means making the second game in 4-5 years without lowering quality. We’re aiming for 4 years; 5 is acceptable, 6 isn’t. Granted, the main reason AoD took so long is because:

  • We had no experience, aka time-consuming trial-and-error approach to game design.
  • We had no tools, no systems (things like combat, dialogues, etc), no engine; literally everything had to be done from scratch.
  • We worked part-time for 10 years (enthusiasm doesn’t pay the bills) and switched to full-time only when the finish line was already in sight

... so there's a good chance that we can make a better game in 4-5 years but it's far from certain.

Anyway, the point is that your first game shows that you have what it takes to make an indie RPG that stands out in a crowd and sells enough to keep you in business. Until you do it again, the first game’s success is nothing but a fluke. You have to perform consistently without any margin for errors because the first mistake might kill you.

A second successful game will secure your future and turn that fellowship of geeks that is your team into a real game development studio. That’s the last hurdle to overcome, which is by no means an easy task.

But wait, there’s more…

Step 4 – Recycle

Even if we manage to make the Colony Ship RPG in 4-5 years AND it will be well received by our existing audience AND it will sell enough to make a third 'full scale' RPG, releasing games once every 4-5 years might not be enough to survive.

I wish we could expand our team right now and hire more people but we can’t, otherwise we risk running out of money and releasing the second game deep in debt (see Step 3). We need a reliable revenue booster, so we’re going to recycle and make an inexpensive tactical, party-based RPG using the first game’s engine, systems, and assets. Such a game is relatively easy to make, since we’re using the already existing building blocks, so the plan is to put it together in under a year and hope that it’s well received.

If it works, the revenues will boost the second game’s budget just as it enters production (we’re working on it now while the Colony Ship RPG is in pre-production), allowing us to get a couple of extra people and spend more money on art.

If it works, we can release a tactical combat game after each 'full scale' RPG and boost the next game’s budget.

Bonus Chapter – What About Marketing?

What about it? Marketing is a game of chance that all but guarantees winning IF you have enough money to stay in the game. There’s a famous saying attributed to John Wanamaker who knew a thing or two about marketing: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."

It’s all about effective frequency, which means that you have to have faith and keep throwing money at ads even when they give you no return whatsoever. Harvard thinks that the magic number is nine. Most people have to see your ad nine times before they start responding to it. Thomas Smith thought the magic number is twenty. Krugman was convinced there are three phases: curiosity, recognition, decision, but obviously each phase takes a number of ads.

So what it means is that unless you have enough money to run ads until they start turning profit, don’t do it. You will spend 5k of your hard-earned money, which is the equivalent of a penny in the exciting world of advertising, get nothing and stop advertising, thus wasting the 5k you’ve just spent.

Without a marketing budget, your options are limited: you need the goodwill of the gaming media, which brings us back to Step 1 – design. Unless your game is worth talking about, the media will ignore it. They want to write what people want to read. If nobody wants to hear about your game, well, this brings us to Step 3 – Community: your most effective way of marketing your game and creating that interest that might result in the media gods looking at your creation favorably and blessing your efforts with a preview or a quick impressions article.

Overall, I don't think there was EVER a better time to be a game developer. Sure, the landscape is crowded (12,818 games on sale on Steam right now, which is insane), but the market is HUGE and there's plenty of room for everyone. There are over 125 million Steam users - that's paying customers able to buy a game with a single click, and all you need to do well is make a game that would appeal to 0.05% (or 0.3-0.5% if you like money a lot) of that ever-growing market. It's easier said than done, of course, but far from impossible.
« Last Edit: July 01, 2016, 10:25:31 am by Vince » Logged
Sunfire
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« Reply #1 on: June 29, 2016, 12:35:42 pm »


 Approve
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CappenVarra
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« Reply #2 on: June 29, 2016, 02:28:16 pm »

 Salute
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098799
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« Reply #3 on: June 30, 2016, 09:23:31 am »

It's always great to read articles like that. Keep them coming, it seems to me that they are a great marketing tool.
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DorkMage
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« Reply #4 on: June 30, 2016, 09:52:25 pm »


If it works, we can release a tactical combat game after each 'full scale' RPG and boost the next game’s budget.


It is puzzling to me why AAA houses don't do this.

Release a causal RPG and then have 2 persons use the assets to do a more hard-core version as a separate franchise.
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daveyd
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« Reply #5 on: July 01, 2016, 03:34:26 pm »

1.  It boggles my mind that AoD only sold a bit more than 50K copies.  I wouldn't expect a classic style CRPG with a massive amount of text to sell in the millions or anything, but there has to be more people who would enjoy such a game out there.  Hell, Torment: ToN had ~75K Kickstarter backers, and I would think that's essentially the target audience.  Anyway, I'm glad this was enough copies for ITS to keep making RPGs, but they deserve success for such making such a great game.  For my part, I recommend it to everyone I can on game related forums etc.  and will continue to bring it up whenever someone asks what the best RPGs of all time are, because it is certainly one of them. 

2.  Would ITS consider doing a Kickstarter for Colony Ship RPG in a couple of years?    As Vince noted here, you're likely to only raise a chunk of the money you actually need, if you're lucky... Still, once there are some screenshots / early gameplay footage to show, I think this game could do pretty well on Kickstarter...    i know the downside is you could potentially waste a month promoting the KS, but since ITS is planning to make the game anyway with revenue from AoD and AoD DC, they could set a relatively base goal and just see what happens.   With some luck, they could raise enough money to hire an extra hand or two.   
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Vince
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« Reply #6 on: July 01, 2016, 03:45:47 pm »

1.  It boggles my mind that AoD only sold a bit more than 50K copies. 
Could have been a LOT worse.

Quote
2.  Would ITS consider doing a Kickstarter for Colony Ship RPG in a couple of years? 
Probably not.
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Assnuggets
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« Reply #7 on: July 01, 2016, 08:57:12 pm »

Not sure what VD did in AoD that was so original.

• Recycled gameplay elements from Fallout.
• Recycled pagan Roman setting.
• Every character is the same exact asshole personality type.

On the other hand.

• Graphics are okay.
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laclongquan
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« Reply #8 on: July 03, 2016, 04:12:26 am »

Interesting article.

I learn a few things from it. Magic number, for one. Might be useful in my line of work.

On another note: characteristics of western developers. They are deathly afraid of recyling and build up on it. Everything must be new unique and whatnot. The few things they dare to do it is not bad, but they really are afraid of doing it:

Fallout 1 -- 2 -- Tactics. Yeah, people praise to the sky 1, ambivalent about 2, and diss on Tactics, mostly because 2 and Tactics recyle many parts of 1 and build upon it.

Same deal with Baldur's Gate 1 and Icewind Dale 1, and in some part Baldur's Gate 2. new, first set foot here, is a powerful phenonmenon in the west.

Good examples of recycling: Mech Commander 1/2. Heroes of Might and Magic 1-3, Knights of Old republic 1-2,

It's a matter of cultural expectation, I think.
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Vince
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« Reply #9 on: July 03, 2016, 08:19:05 am »

On another note: characteristics of western developers. They are deathly afraid of recyling and build up on it. Everything must be new unique and whatnot.
I don't think that's the case. While creating "new and unique" has its own merits, the main issue is sales and whether or not you get to stay in business. New and unique have a higher chance of keeping you afloat.

Had AoD sold as much as Darkest Dungeon, for argument's sake, we would be working on AoD 2 right now. It didn't so we have to move on because sequels tend to sell a lot less.

Quote
Fallout 1 -- 2 -- Tactics. Yeah, people praise to the sky 1, ambivalent about 2, and diss on Tactics, mostly because 2 and Tactics recyle many parts of 1 and build upon it.
Fallout 1 was a great game. Fallout 2 was a good game by the virtue of being a sequel to a great game, but it didn't really build anything upon it but introduced a lot of dumb shit that didn't fit the setting. Tactics was a mediocre tactical game that continued shitting on the setting and lore. It wasn't a good Fallout game and it wasn't a good tactical game, falling short from the standards set by Jagged Alliance 2.
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Captain Shrek
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« Reply #10 on: July 04, 2016, 05:49:28 am »

 Salute

I am no master of business, but this all seems like sound advice to me. I wonder what more marketing could have benefited AoD. Vince, have you considered what you guys will add for the Colony ship on that front?
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"The essence of balance is detachment. To embrace a cause, to grow fond or spiteful, is to lose one's balance, after which, no action can be trusted. Our burden is not for the dependent of spirit."
Vince
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« Reply #11 on: July 04, 2016, 10:15:57 am »

I am no master of business, but this all seems like sound advice to me. I wonder what more marketing could have benefited AoD. Vince, have you considered what you guys will add for the Colony ship on that front?
On the marketing front? I'm not really thinking about it yet as it's way too early. For now I'll continue to post monthly updates, which is low-key marketing. The main reason is to get feedback early, which is critical, but it also generates awareness. Until we can present the game properly (first screens and such), it's too early to consider the options.
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Scott
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« Reply #12 on: July 05, 2016, 11:14:55 am »

It wasn't a good Fallout game and it wasn't a good tactical game, falling short from the standards set by Jagged Alliance 2.
In my opinion there hasn't been a game, any game, which meets the standards set by Jagged Alliance 2. And as I like to remind people that developer went under shortly after publishing it.

I'm also convinced AoD could sell many more copies, provided you could get it in front of more eyes, which is almost impossible to do.

One thing people tend to overlook about Kickstarter is that participation is a month-long marketing blitz. The game is exposed in a different market, and potentially gets a ton of free exposure from game sites, *especially* if you're an established studio with two games under your belt. Instead of writing a game review or interview, all they have to do is copy/paste from the description and link to the video. This exposure applies even if you don't get funded!
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TorQueMoD
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« Reply #13 on: July 11, 2016, 01:45:42 pm »

A very well written article overall but I think you've missed one very important step... Start Small.
I realize it might be counter intuitive for you to say this considering the size and scope of your own project but to be completely honest, if you've never made a game before you shouldn't be trying to make a fully fledged RPG in the first place as you and your team can probably attest to with your 11 year development cycle. Sure you finished the game and yes, it was successful but in hindsight don't you think a good idea would have been to narrow your scope?
The smarter way to approach an RPG would be the reverse of what you're going to do. Make the simpler action tactical RPG first in a few years and THEN expand it into a proper RPG (though again I say don't even attempt and RPG as your first or even 4th game in the first place). You can't be profitable as an indie even spending 2 years in development (not counting early access).

The best way to get your start in games is to start with something ridiculously simply and then with each new game expand from there. Sure it might not rocket you to epic indie status on your first game, but your first game regardless of quality isn't likely to sell well anyway (again as pointed out by yourself) due to the fact that no one knows who you are. So the best approach is to make something more simple with maybe a unique twist on classic gameplay rather than reinventing the wheel for your first project and then expand little by little for each successive project until you get your legs and have a decent fan base built up. Then you can work on the completely unique and amazing game as maybe your 4th or 5th project. Otherwise you risk not ever finishing a project at all. If you can't release either a playable demo or a beta or early access within 6 months, then your project is too ambitious for a first indie project. And when theorizing how long it will take to create your game, always double the amount of time you think it will take to get even remotely close to the real number. 
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TorQueMoD
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« Reply #14 on: July 11, 2016, 01:55:39 pm »

...characteristics of western developers. They are deathly afraid of recyling and build up on it. Everything must be new unique and whatnot...

Not to sound rude, but what amazing western games are YOU playing? I'd love to get my hands on those. Every AAA game I see made by western devs is the same old garbage recycled over and over without hardly any real imagination added in. In fact the annual game franchise is seriously getting out of control. Assassin's Creed, (Shock and amazement, Ubisoft is taking 1 year off!) Destiny, Battlefield, Call of Duty, Battlefront(now), Need for Speed, Grand Theft Auto (not yearly thank god but still) Watch Dogs(new), Mirror's Edge(failed). Not to mention that most indies even try to ride the wake of whatever game type is the new craze... Minecraft (building in a persistent world) and Day Z (survival "emergent" game vs zombies) are two of the most cloned games in existence. And now two new hot features to include are Dinosaurs and Space - hey, why not make a game about Space Dinosaurs! Even scarier is that it looks like after a decade long break, we're going to be heading back to war games for another 10 years!

Western development is all about the trends and trying to be one of the first 5 games to feature the new hotness! Blech!
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